Four High-Stakes Political Speeches

From the archives of The Influential Executive, 10/2008

Four High-Stakes Political Speeches, Four Lessons
For Executive Communicators

Obama offers a cautionary tale, McCain uses repetition effectively, Biden takes the words right out of his audience’s mouth, and Sarah does a subtle imPalin’.

What’s that clanking sound?

Barack Obama efficiently articulated the Democratic Party’s philosophy in three paragraphs of his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention; but along the way, he unwittingly opened the door to Republican critiques:

Ours—ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves: protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools, and new roads, and science, and technology. Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who’s willing to work. That’s the promise of America, the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.

Beautiful, beautiful, beautif—wait, back up: “education, clean water and … safe toys”? Aside from the aural thud it creates, this odd grouping calls into question Obama’s sense of proportion when it comes to government responsibility. The opposite of what he was trying to accomplish! It’s hard to imagine how this line got through; don’t let it happen to you. As a great speech editor once said, “Be ye ever watchful.”

Repetition—it works over and over again

John McCain’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention came to a rousing conclusion: I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s. …

I’m going to fight for my cause every day as your President. I’m going to fight to make sure every American has every reason to thank God, as I thank Him: that I’m an American, a proud citizen of the greatest country on earth, and with hard work, strong faith and a little courage, great things are always within our reach. Fight with me. Fight with me.

Fight for what’s right for our country.
Fight for the ideals and character of a free people.
Fight for our children’s future.
Fight for justice and opportunity for all.
Stand up to defend our country from its enemies.,br> Stand up for each other; for beautiful, blessed, bountiful America.
Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight. Nothing is inevitable here. We’re Americans, and we never give up.
We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history.
Thank you, and God Bless you.

Fight, fight, fight, fight. Stand up, stand up, stand up, stand up. Repetition is an old trick, but if it’s delivered with courage, it always works.

Two scrickets to tanton ….

Democratic VP candidate Joe Biden’s dubious “Freudian slip” overshadowed the strong section of his acceptance speech that led up to it:

I’ve never seen a time when Washington has watched so many people get knocked down without doing anything to help them get back up.

Almost every single night, I take the train home to Wilmington, Delaware, sometimes very late. As I sit there in my seat and I look out that window, I see those flickering lights of the homes that pass by, I can almost hear the conversation they’re having at their kitchen tables after they put their kids to bed.

Like millions of Americans, they’re asking questions as ordinary as they are profound, questions they never, ever thought they’d have to ask themselves.

Should Mom move in with us now that Dad’s gone? Fifty, sixty, seventy dollars just to fill up the gas tank? How in God’s name, with winter coming, how are we going to heat the home? Another year, no raise. Did you hear they may be cutting our health care at the company? Now we owe more money on our home than our home is worth. How in God’s name are we going to send the kids to college? How are we going to retire, Joe?

You know, folks, that’s the America that George Bush has left us. And that’s the America we’ll continue to get if George—excuse me, if John McCain is elected president of the United States of America. Freudian slip. Freudian slip.

There’s no better way to resonate with an audience than to actually take the words right out of its mouth, which Biden did here.

A precise imPalin
Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin showed that a well-set-up, carefully delivered line can do a lot of damage without making a lot of noise:

I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids’ public education better.

When I ran for city council, I didn’t need focus groups and voter profiles because I knew those voters, and knew their families, too.

Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves.

I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a “community organizer,” except that you have actual responsibilities.

When she delivered that last line, Palin deftly put the stress on “guess” and as-much-as-winked at the crowd, subtly and brilliantly appealing to most Americans, who don’t live in cities and who have only a vague notion of what an “organizer” does. With that line, as with so many other lines in her finely calibrated speech, Palin squarely connected with Americans who are suspicious of Obama’s biography and suspicious of his motives.


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